- The Temptations of Trade: Britain, Spain, and the Struggle for Empire by Adrian Finucane
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
Although Atlantic world history is now a mainstay in the historical profession, scholars have only recently begun to integrate the histories of the North and South Atlantic areas. While some historians have compared the British and Spanish imperial projects in the Americas, a small but growing literature has started to analyze more concrete interactions among British and Spanish Americans. In this history of the British-held asiento, Adrian Finucane emphasizes the “compelling mutual interests” of the British and Spanish Empires, noting the Spanish need for slaves in the Americas and the British desire to gain more direct access to South American markets (55). By analyzing interimperial interaction, such scholarship promises to make Atlantic world history more truly transnational rather than merely repackaging imperial history. In The Temptations of Trade, Finucane provides a rich contribution to this late historiographical trend.
Finucane recounts the combined histories of the asiento and the South Sea Company. As part of the Treaty of Utrecht, which concluded the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, the Spanish Empire granted the British the asiento—a monopoly on the Spanish-American slave trade that expired in 1748. In turn, Parliament entrusted the monopoly to the South Sea Company. Most historians have examined the South Sea Company in relation to the economic bubble that burst and caused a widespread financial crisis in Britain in the 1720s. Instead, Finucane tells the unexamined story of the South Sea Company’s asiento trade. Finucane takes her narrative beyond imperial history, however, as she examines the lived experience of those involved with the trade. The asiento brought into close contact traders in Spain, Britain, Spanish America, and the British and Spanish West Indies. Finucane elucidates their interactions and analyzes how they affected the trajectories of empire. She argues that in the imperial peripheries of the Americas, traders subordinated their loyalties and national identities to their commercial interests. To maximize profits, they engaged in illicit commercial and social relationships, contesting the power of European states to regulate their interimperial associations. Finucane makes clear, [End Page 783] therefore, that “local realities . . . sometimes conflicted significantly with the hopes of those in the metropole” (1).
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European empires coveted the precious metals flowing to Spain from South America. Prior to Spain’s concession of the asiento to Britain, British traders sporadically engaged in illicit or unconventional commerce in South America through smuggling, piracy, and privateering. Far beyond the reaches of Spain’s central government, they took advantage of the weakness of imperial control at the edges of empire to penetrate Spanish commerce. They provided valuable information to the British government about the Spanish, but they took more interest in profit than patriotism. By controlling the peace negotiations following the War of the Spanish Succession, British officials compelled the Spanish Empire to concede the asiento, opening the way for a legal, if limited, interimperial trade in the Americas.
By tracing the changes wrought on trade structures by the asiento after 1713, Finucane exposes the blurry links between illicit activity and patriotism in the Atlantic world. Prior to 1713, British traders such as Manuel Manasses Gilligan defied imperial laws as they conducted commerce with Spanish subjects. After the concession of the asiento, however, they proved a valuable asset to the South Sea Company due to their extensive knowledge of Spanish trading patterns.
Finucane illuminates the debates over political economy in the British and Spanish Empires, arguing that the imperial visions developed in a contested environment rather than according to a uniform ideology of empire. By conceding the asiento to the British, Spanish officials hoped to regularize and benefit from interimperial trade despite the concerns of merchants in Spain that the asiento would erode their monopoly on South American trade. In Britain, Whigs argued against granting the monopoly to the South Sea Company and allowing its factors to settle in Spanish lands. They claimed that the British economy would grow according to the value of labor...